It shocked us to learn that almost a third of the food produced globally for human consumption is wasted. That’s estimated to be around 1.3 billion tonnes, which, we’ll admit, we can’t even fathom. Looking at the UK alone, a government inquiry in 2015 found that 8 million tonnes of food is wasted nationally with an annual value of around £16 billion a year. The good news is that 60% of that waste is avoidable.
While lawmakers are absolutely responsible too, we each have our part to play since household food waste is largely a problem affecting developed countries; infrastructural shortcomings are more often to blame in developing countries. In the UK, almost 5 billion tonnes of our food waste is classed as edible and 85% of that waste occurs in our homes, costing the average UK household £470 a year: we have the opportunity to make a huge difference.
Here are some ideas on how to go about doing just that as (while disposing of food waste is one issue) prevention is far better than cure.
The first practical step to reducing food waste is to inject a little bit of (realistic) organisation into our food consumption. Pre-planning your week’s meals and buying accordingly is the best way to do this. However, if your life is unpredictable, it’s even more important to make sure you’re being realistic. It’s easy to get swept up in new resolutions but it’s always better to under- rather than over-prepare where food is concerned. You can always pop out and pick up more supplies, but if your perishables sit and grow mould the only real option is to throw them away.
Additionally, be wary of supermarket’s special offers. While they may seem like good value, buying things just because they are on offer is a surefire way to generate more waste. Unless you’re sure you’re going to eat whatever-it-is, don’t get sucked in. It’s not a good deal if you’re just going to throw it away.
On the other hand, in an attempt to reduce their own food waste, many supermarkets ( Lidl, Asda, Morrisons or Tesco) now offer “wonky” — or imperfect veg — too and buying this can be an adventure. If you’d rather it was delivered to your door, Oddbox is a great option.
One of the guiding principles of food retail can be applied to your home: first in, first out. When you’re putting your shopping away, take a couple of minutes to rotate the contents of your cupboards and fridge: make sure older stuff is brought to the front and your shiny new groceries are placed further back. This will save time when you come to actually use them and significantly reduce the chances of anything festering at the back.
This one might sound obvious until you learn that 20% of food waste is due to confusion about what the dates stamped onto packaging really mean. “Best before” and “use by” dates are two very different things, but we often mistake the former for the latter. The important difference: “best before” is about quality, whereas “use by” is related to safety. Best before dates — most often seen on frozen, tinned and dried foods — are an indication that the food may be past its “best” but is still perfectly safe to eat. Use by dates — generally found on foods that spoil quickly like ready-to-eat meals or meats — mean that the food is no longer safe to consume, even if it looks ok.
In order for both “use by” and “best before” dates to be valid, and to avoid wasting food due to spoiling, the food must be stored correctly. To ensure this, if refrigerating, your fridge should be set at 5°C or lower but the colder it is the more likely your food is to freeze unintentionally. Most fruits and vegetables are best refrigerated, but some — like tomatoes, garlic, potatoes and onions — should be kept in a cool, dark cupboard while others still — like bananas and whole pineapples — last better when left on a countertop. Fresh salad leaves are one to watch out for: even if they look perfectly healthy, eating them after their use-by date is not a good idea due to bacteria that can develop on them.
Another great way to minimise food waste is by using your freezer. While most of us are clued up on batch cooking or freezing leftovers, many of us don’t realise that almost any food can be frozen, so long as it’s frozen before its use-by date. So when you’re rotating your cupboards, keep an eye out for anything getting close to going off. By freezing food, you’re pressing the “pause” button; it will not lose any nutrients or deteriorate in any way, it’s also a great way to preserve local, seasonal produce to give you a hit of summer berries in your winter porridge without hiking up your carbon footprint. Most fruits can be put straight in the freezer (some, like grapes and berries, make great ice cubes) but most vegetables need to be blanched first (chopped, boiled for a couple of minutes then transferred immediately to cold water) to avoid freezer burn. Freezing is not recommended for the following: artichokes, chicory, aubergine, lettuce greens, potatoes (unless they’re mashed), radishes, sprouts or sweet potatoes.
We often find ourselves at the mercy of “Eyes Bigger than Belly” syndrome. One way to get around this is to ask for a doggy bag at the end of the meal; trust us, it’s trendy. Although, perhaps not if you’re out on the town after... In this case, especially if you know you are going to struggle to get through an entire however-many-course meal plus drinks, then a great idea is to ask for reduced portion sizes.
This principle carries over to eating at home, too. Cooking smaller meals to avoid unplanned-for leftovers is the first step (and this is where that shopping list comes back into play). If you’re used to big portions, using smaller plates is a great way to convince your brain your plate is full but reduces portion sizes and thus avoids food wastage too.
If all else fails and you know you have food that is nearing the end of its life, which you are unlikely to use, a quick Google search can bring up your local food bank (the Trussell Trust is a good place to start). 90% of foodbank food — used to provide emergency nutrition to people in crisis — is donated by the public, so every little really does help.
While convenient, we generally look at takeaways or ready meals as an unhealthy treat and often result in wastage too. That’s one of the many reasons we launched allplants. Enjoy delicious, ready-to-eat meals from your freezer, made by our chefs, daily. All our packaging is either recyclable or reusable, and we only use plant-based ingredients - good for you and the planet. Part of the reason we came into being was to provide a healthy, environmentally-friendly alternative to both takeaways and cooking for busy people; the fact that ordering our meals helps you cut back on food waste is a huge bonus.
In order to do any of these things, we need to inherently change the way we think. While that sounds discouraging, actually it’s not. Our brains are wonderful organs: they are highly adaptable and science suggests that it takes just 66 days for us to change a habit. The key to changing our behaviour around food waste comes, initially, by changing the way we think about food and ourselves in relation to food. This is subtle but twofold:
Dame Ellen MacArthur is dedicated to rethinking our human relationship with the earth’s resources. She attributes her passion to the time she spent living in boats, in the middle of the ocean, making do with what she had. Learning to value food — as part of our planet’s ‘natural capital’ was an invaluable lesson: by valuing the finite resources we have we are more likely to keep them in our economy and out of the environment, which is ultimately what we want. In terms of food, this means creating as little waste as possible.
Robert Bringhurst, a poet with an environmental conscience, says that a key to taking responsibility for our actions is thinking like an ecosystem. It’s only by understanding cause and effect, by learning how things truly intersect, that our behaviours take on real purpose. And purpose is how we change our habits.
After all this, why is it even necessary to worry about the food we waste: we put the food we throw out into our “food waste caddy” and it’s collected every other week. Surely that’s ok. Right? Well, not really. It’s not the disposal that’s so much of a problem at the household level.
From an anthropocentric viewpoint, there are nearly one billion people on our planet who do not have enough to eat; while Baby packaging up her leftovers to send to orphans in Africa may not be quite the right attitude, those billion people could be fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and mainland Europe.
Food is resource-heavy to produce. It requires vast amounts of energy (fuel, fertiliser production and transport are just the tip of the iceberg) which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Food production also requires water and lots of it. The greenhouse gases produced by the food we waste amount to 3.3 billion tonnes; if this was a single country it would be ranked third after China and the USA. In terms of water, according to the UN, we waste an amount equivalent to the annual flow of Europe’s longest river (the Volga) every year."
Food production also requires land. 50% of the world's habitable land is used for agriculture and an area larger than China is used to grow food that is never eaten. Additionally, not all food waste is created equal. Of the land used for agriculture, 77% is used for livestock that provides only 17% of our calories yet have a much greater impact on the environment than vegetable substitutes (switching beef for tofu just once a week reduces your carbon footprint by 592kg or the equivalent of driving from London to Athens). Therefore, wasting meat is worse than almost anything else.